12th May 2022

An image of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way has been captured, giving the first direct glimpse of the “gentle giant” at the centre of our galaxy.

The black hole itself, known as Sagittarius A*, cannot be seen because no light or matter can escape its gravitational grip. But its shadow is traced out by a glowing, fuzzy ring of light and matter that is swirling on the precipice at close to the speed of light.

The image was captured by the Event Horizon telescope (EHT), a network of eight radio telescopes spanning locations from Antarctica to Spain and Chile, which produced the first image of a black hole in a galaxy called Messier 87 in 2019.

Prof Sera Markoff, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam and co-chair of the EHT Science Council, said: “The Milky Way’s black hole was our main target, it’s our closest supermassive black hole and it’s the reason we set out to do this thing in the first place. It’s been a 100-year search for these things and so, scientifically, it’s a huge deal.”

The image provides compelling proof that there is a black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, which had been the working assumption of mainstream astronomy. A minority of scientists had continued to speculate about the possibility of other exotic objects, such as boson stars or clumps of dark matter.

“I’m personally happy about the fact it really drills home the fact that there is definitely a black hole at the centre of our galaxy,” said Dr Ziri Younsi, a member of the EHT collaboration based at University College London.

To the untrained eye, the latest image might appear roughly similar to that of the black hole, M87*, but the two objects are extremely different, according to the EHT team.

Sagittarius A* is consuming only a trickle of material, in contrast to the typical depiction of black holes as violent, ravenous monsters of the cosmos. “If SgrA* were a person, it would only consume a single grain of rice every million years,” said Michael Johnson of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

M87*, by contrast, is one of the largest black holes in the universe and features vast, powerful jets that launch light and matter from its poles into intergalactic space.

“Sgr A* is giving us a view into the much more standard state of black holes: quiet and quiescent,” said Johnson. “[It] is exciting because it’s common.”

The latest observations also appear to show that our black hole’s angle of rotation is not neatly aligned with the galactic plane, but is off-kilter by about 30 degrees, and hint at spectacular magnetic activity similar to that seen in the sun’s atmosphere. Beyond the science, astronomers acknowledged an emotional connection with finally seeing the enigmatic object about which our home galaxy revolves.

“It’s another doughnut, but it’s our doughnut,” said Younsi.

Despite being local in astronomical terms at 26,000 light years away, observing SgrA* turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. The team spent five years analysing data acquired during fortuitously clear skies across several continents in April 2017.

Sagittarius A* is relatively small, meaning that the dust and gas in its accretion disc orbit in a matter of minutes rather than weeks, creating a moving target from one observation to the next. Markoff compared the observations with trying to photograph a puppy chasing its tail using a camera with a slow shutter speed. Scientists also had to peer through the galactic plane and filter out intervening stars and dust clouds from their images. Some combination of these factors – and possibly some extreme black hole phenomenon – explain the bright blobs in the image.

“We didn’t anticipate how evasive and elusive it would be,” said Younsi. “It was really a tough picture to take. It’s hard to overstate that.”

The EHT picks up radiation emitted by particles within the accretion disc that are heated to billions of degrees as they orbit the black hole before plunging into the central vortex. The blotchy halo in the image shows light bent by the powerful gravity of the black hole, which is 4 million times more massive than that of our sun.

Ultimately, scientists hope that observing a range of black holes – fairly dormant ones like our own and turbulent giants like M87* – could help answer a chicken-and-egg style question about the evolution of galaxies.

“It’s an open question in galactic formation and evolution. We don’t know which came first, the galaxy or black hole,” said Prof Carole Mundell, an astrophysicist at the University of Bath who is not part of the EHT collaboration.

“From the technology perspective it’s mind-blowing that we can do this,” she said of the latest images.

The EHT team’s results are published on Thursday in a special issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/may/12/supermassive-black-hole-centre-milky-way-first-time-sagittarius-a-?fr=operanews

1st May 2022

Meet ignimbrite, a volcanic rock found here on Earth and potentially on Mars.

An unusual rock type spotted by two Mars rovers may indicate that the Martian landscape was shaped by extremely violent volcanic eruptions.

The Nili Fossae region of Mars, which includes the Jezero Crater that NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently exploring, is filled with bedrock laden with the volcanic mineral olivine. That same olivine-rich bedrock was also found at the Gusev Crater, where NASA’s Spirit Rover roamed until its demise in 2010. But the connection between the regions wasn’t made until now, by a team led by planetary geologist Steve Ruff of Arizona State University. The researchers examined data from multiple Mars rovers to confirm the geologic similarities, which indicates the local rocks might have formed by similar processes. Then the scientists compared Spirit’s images of the Gusev Crater rock with images of Earth rocks.

“That was a eureka moment,” Ruff said in a statement. “I was seeing the same kind of textures in the rocks of Gusev crater as those in a very specific kind of volcanic rock found here on Earth.”

That rock is ignimbrite, which is created from the ash, pumice and pyroclastic flows of powerful volcanic eruptions. “No one had previously suggested ignimbrites as an explanation for olivine-rich bedrock on Mars,” Ruff said. “And it’s possible that this is the kind of rock that the Perseverance rover has been driving around on and sampling for the past year.”

Although researchers have long theorized that volcanism was responsible for producing the Nili Fossae — olivine is, after all, a volcanic mineral — the identification of ignimbrite, if proven accurate, would indicate that the eruptions were more cataclysmic than previously thought.

“Imagine a ground-hugging cloud of hot gasses and nearly molten ash and pumice flowing through the landscape for dozens of miles and piling up in layers up to hundreds of feet thick in just a few days,” Ruff said about eruptions that have produced this type of rock on Earth.

To confirm the presence of ignimbrite on Mars, the scientists say they will have to study the rocks in a terrestrial lab another argument for the planned Mars Sample Return mission to ferry Perseverance’s samples back to Earth.

The results of this study will be published in a paper in the journal Icarus in July.

Source: https://www.space.com/mars-rock-violent-volcanic-eruption-ignimbrite

21st March 2022

Three Russian cosmonauts have arrived at the International Space Station wearing yellow flight suits with blue accents, colours that match the Ukrainian flag.

The men were the first new arrivals on the space station since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine last month.

Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev and Sergey Korsakov, of Russian space corporation Roscosmos, blasted off successfully from the Russia-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan in their Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft on Friday at 8.55pm local time. They smoothly docked at the station just over three hours later, joining two Russians, four Americans and a German on the orbiting outpost.

Video of Artemyev taken as the spacecraft prepared to dock with the space station showed him wearing a blue flight suit. It was unclear what, if any, message the yellow uniforms they changed into were intended to send.

When the cosmonauts were able to talk to family back on Earth, Artemyev was asked about the suits. He said every crew chose their own.

“It became our turn to pick a colour. But, in fact, we had accumulated a lot of yellow material so we needed to use it,” he said. “So that’s why we had to wear yellow.”

Since the war started, many people have used the Ukrainian flag and its colours to show solidarity with the country.

The war has resulted in cancelled spacecraft launches and broken contracts. The Roscosmos chief, Dmitry Rogozin, has warned that the US would have to use “broomsticks” to fly into space after Russia said it would stop supplying rocket engines to US companies. Many worry, however, that Rogozin is putting decades of a peaceful off-planet partnership at risk, most notably at the space station.

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson played down Rogozin’s comments, saying: “That’s just Dmitry Rogozin. He spouts off every now and then. But at the end of the day, he’s worked with us.

“The other people that work in the Russian civilian space program, they’re professional. They don’t miss a beat with us, American astronauts and American mission control. Despite all of that, up in space, we can have a cooperation with our Russian friends, our colleagues.”

Nasa astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who on Tuesday broke the US single spaceflight record of 340 days, is due to leave the space station with two Russians aboard a Soyuz capsule for a touchdown in Kazakhstan on 30 March.

In April, another three Nasa and one Italian astronaut are set to blast off for the space station.

Source: https://amp.theguardian.com/science/2022/mar/19/russian-cosmonauts-board-iss-wearing-colours-of-ukraine-flag

28th February 2022

Russia halts Soyuz rocket launches from South America over European sanctions on Ukraine invasion

The announcement stalls Soyuz launches from French Guiana with European launch provider Arianespace

“In response to EU sanctions against our enterprises, Roscosmos is suspending cooperation with European partners in organizing space launches from the Kourou cosmodrome and withdrawing its personnel, including the consolidated launch crew, from French Guiana,” Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said in a Twitter statement on Saturday (Feb. 26) according to a translation from Russian.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos is stopping all Soyuz rocket launches from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana due to European Union sanctions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Russia is also recalling 87 Russian workers from Europe’s South American spaceport in French Guiana who support Soyuz rocket launches for Roscosmos and the Russian companies NPO Lavochkin a, Progress RCC and TsENKI, according to a second Twitter statement from Roscosmos.

“The issue of the departure of Russian employees is being worked out,” Roscosmos wrote. Russia’s moves come as European Union nations, the United States and other countries have levied severe economic sanctions on Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday (Feb. 24). 

Russia’s Soyuz rockets are used by the European launch provider Arianespace to launch satellites from the Guiana Space Center near Kourou, French Guiana, as well as from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (where Russia regularly launches its own Soyuz missions). The most recent Soyuz rocket to launch from Guiana Space Center lifted off on Feb. 10 carrying 34 OneWeb internet satellites.

Arianespace, based in France, also uses its own European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and Vega rocket for smaller launches from French Guiana. 

Arianespace’s next Soyuz launch was scheduled for early April to launch two Galileo navigation satellites into orbit for the European Union’s Galileo constellation. That mission will almost certainly be delayed due to Russia’s announcement on Saturday. 

Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for Space, said Russia’s decision to halt Soyuz launches with Europe will not interrupt any services for users of the Galileo satellites or of the E.U.’s Copernicus Earth observation satellite program. 

“I confirm that this decision has no consequences on the continuity and quality of the Galileo and Copernicus services,” Breton said in the statement. “Nor does this decision put the continued development of these infrastructures at risk.”

Breton added that the E.U. and its member states are “ready to act decisively” in order to “protect these critical infrastructures in case of aggression,” and that it will  “continue to develop Ariane 6 and Vega C to ensure Europe’s strategic autonomy in the area of launchers.”

The Ariane 6 rocket is Europe’s successor to the Ariane 5 and is expected to make its first flight sometime later in 2022. The Vega C rocket is a follow-on to Europe’s Vega rocket that is designed to reach more orbits and carry more diverse payloads for the same cost. The European Space Agency and Arianespace are working to develop the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets. 

On Friday (Feb. 25), ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher said in a statement that the European space officials were “closely monitoring what’s happening” in Ukraine while weighing any response. ESA is working closely with Russia’s space program to launch the European ExoMars rover mission to Mars later this year.

In addition to calling off Soyuz launches from French Guiana, Rogozin also announced Saturday that he no longer felt a joint Russian-U.S. collaboration on Russia’s planned Venera-D mission to Venus was necessary, given the ongoing sanctions. 

In a separate statement, Rogozin wrote that he found it “inappropriate” for any continued participation of the U.S. in the Russian Venus mission, which was slated to launch sometime in the 2020s. NASA scientists began talks with Russia to participate in the Venera-D mission in 2017. 

Source: https://www.space.com/russia-halts-soyuz-launches-french-guiana

13th February 2021

The team behind NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope released some of the first images from the much-anticipated observatory on Friday (Feb. 11). The main photo, which doesn’t even hint at the power Webb will bring to the universe once it’s fully operational, shows a star called HD 84406 and is only a portion of the mosaic taken over 25 hours beginning on Feb. 2, during the ongoing process to align the observatory’s segmented mirror.

“The entire Webb team is ecstatic at how well the first steps of taking images and aligning the telescope are proceeding,” Marcia Rieke, principal investigator of the instrument that Webb relies on for the alignment procedure and an astronomer at the University of Arizona, said in a NASA statement.

JWST is now 48 days out from its Christmas Day launch and in the midst of a commissioning process expected to last about six months. The telescope spent the first month unfolding from its launch configuration and trekking out nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth.

During the bulk of the remaining time, scientists are focusing on waking and calibrating the observatory’s instruments and making the minute adjustments to the telescope’s 18 golden mirror segments that are necessary for crisp, clear images of the deep universe.

The process is going well, according to NASA.

“This initial search covered an area about the size of the full moon because the segment dots could potentially have been that spread out on the sky,” Marshall Perrin, the deputy telescope scientist for Webb and an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said in the same statement. “Taking so much data right on the first day required all of Webb’s science operations and data processing systems here on Earth working smoothly with the observatory in space right from the start. And we found light from all 18 segments very near the center early in that search! This is a great starting point for mirror alignment.”

Still, the telescope has a long way to go, as today’s image of HD 84406 shows.

“The first images are going to be ugly,” Jane Rigby, Webb operations project scientist, said during a news conference held on Jan. 8 as the telescope began the process of unstowing its mirrors. “It is going to be blurry. We’ll [have] 18 of these little images all over the sky.”

And the photograph does indeed show multiple views of HD 84406, the star that JWST scientists recently announced they had chosen to look at first. “Star light, star bright … the first star Webb will see is HD 84406, a sun-like star about 260 light-years away,” NASA officials wrote on Twitter on Jan. 28.

HD 84406 is in the constellation Ursa Major, or Big Bear, but is not visible from Earth without a telescope. But it was a perfect early target for Webb because its brightness is steady and the observatory can always spot it, so launch or deployment delays wouldn’t affect the plan.

Oddly, JWST won’t be able to observe HD 84406 later in its tenure; once the telescope is focused, this star will be too bright to look at. Previously, JWST personnel have said that the telescope will be seeing fairly sharply by late April.

Even as the JWST works to hone its vision, a second key process is taking place in the background as the observatory sends the remaining heat from its time on Earth out into space. Because Webb is tuned to study the universe in infrared light, which also registers as heat, the observatory must be incredibly cold to obtain accurate data.

NASA scientists expect that the golden primary mirror will reach temperatures as low as minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 223 degrees Celsius or 50 degrees Kelvin); instruments must be even colder, according to an agency statement.

In addition to the image of HD 84406, NASA also shared a “selfie” image that the observatory took using a special lens targeting the observatory’s primary mirror to assist during the alignment process.

All told, scientists are thrilled about the observatory’s progress.

“Launching Webb to space was of course an exciting event, but for scientists and optical engineers, this is a pinnacle moment, when light from a star is successfully making its way through the system down onto a detector,” Michael McElwain, Webb observatory project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in the statement.

Source: https://www.space.com/james-webb-space-telescope-first-photos-unveiled

On This Day in Space! Jan. 16, 1969: 1st docking of 2 crewed spacecraft

On January 16, 1969, two crewed spacecraft docked in orbit for the first time. 

When the Soviet Union launched the Soyuz 4 spacecraft, only one cosmonaut was on board. But it returned with a crew of three after two cosmonauts from Soyuz 5 transferred spacecrafts in orbit.

Soyuz 4 safely returned to Earth, but the one unlucky cosmonaut who was left behind in Soyuz 5 had a pretty rough landing.   

During reentry, the service module failed to separate from the descent module, and the spacecraft got turned upside-down. To top it off, the parachutes and soft-landing rockets failed to deploy properly. That cosmonaut, Boris Volynov, miraculously survived the crash — but he did lose a few teeth.

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

January 10th 2022

James Webb Space Telescope has enough fuel for way more than 10 years of science

It’s thanks to a super-precise launch, NASA says.

NASA’s newest flagship space observatory should have enough fuel to more than double its minimum mission life peering into the history of the universe, according to an agency update.

The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, a collaboration with the Canadian and European space agencies led by NASA, launched into space Saturday (Dec. 25) on an Ariane 5 rocket. Often billed as a successor to the agency’s iconic Hubble Space Telescope, Webb (also known as  JWST) is designed to focus on infrared light, giving astronomers a look at the earliest days of the universe. Despite an ambitious science agenda, the mission was designed with just a five-year minimum lifetime — but with the observatory finally in space, NASA is confident that it will have enough fuel to see much more use than that.

“The Webb team has analyzed its initial trajectory and determined the observatory should have enough propellant to allow support of science operations in orbit for significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime,” NASA officials wrote in a statement posted Wednesday (Dec. 29).” For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope has lasted more than 30 years. 

James Webb Space Telescope has enough fuel for way more than 10 years of science

By Meghan Bartels published 11 days ago

It’s thanks to a super-precise launch, NASA says.

The James Webb Space Telescope fires its thruster in the second of three mid-course maneuvers in this NASA graphic.

The James Webb Space Telescope fires its thruster in the second of three mid-course maneuvers in this NASA graphic. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA’s newest flagship space observatory should have enough fuel to more than double its minimum mission life peering into the history of the universe, according to an agency update.

The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, a collaboration with the Canadian and European space agencies led by NASA, launched into space Saturday (Dec. 25) on an Ariane 5 rocket. Often billed as a successor to the agency’s iconic Hubble Space Telescope, Webb (also known as  JWST) is designed to focus on infrared light, giving astronomers a look at the earliest days of the universe. Despite an ambitious science agenda, the mission was designed with just a five-year minimum lifetime — but with the observatory finally in space, NASA is confident that it will have enough fuel to see much more use than that.

“The Webb team has analyzed its initial trajectory and determined the observatory should have enough propellant to allow support of science operations in orbit for significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime,” NASA officials wrote in a statement posted Wednesday (Dec. 29).” For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope has lasted more than 30 years. 

“Incredible news! Congratulations to the team!” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, wrote in a tweet also posted Wednesday. “The extra propellant is largely due to the precision of the @Arianespace Ariane 5 launch, which exceeded the requirements needed to put @NASAWebb on the right path, as well as the precision of the first mid-course correction maneuver.”

That said, the agency noted that it can’t provide a specific estimate for how long the observatory will last.

“The analysis shows that less propellant than originally planned for is needed to correct Webb’s trajectory toward its final orbit,” officials wrote in the statement. “Consequently, Webb will have much more than the baseline estimate of propellant — though many factors could ultimately affect Webb’s duration of operation.”

Webb has completed two of the three burns required to see it to its final destination; the final burn will take place nearly a month after launch and will mark the last step in the observatory’s perilous deployment process. The first maneuver occurred on Saturday after launch, with the second taking place Monday (Dec. 27).

Webb is destined to orbit a location in space known as the second Earth-sun Lagrange point, or L2, which is nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth in the direction opposite of the sun. Here, the telescope will be less vulnerable to solar radiation that can interfere with its infrared observations.

Lagrange points are sometimes nicknamed “parking” spots for spacecraft, as they mark locations where the gravitational tugs of different bodies balance out. However, throughout its stay at L2, Webb will need to conduct occasional small thruster burns for “station keeping” and “momentum management” to retain its proper location and orientation in space.

That’s what the propellant remaining after the third burn will be used for. And Webb will have more fuel left in its tank than NASA had dared to hope. The initial launch precisely targeted the observatory’s desired trajectory, meaning the spacecraft needed to spend less time and fuel on its first two correction maneuvers.

Source: https://www.space.com/james-webb-space-telescope-fuel-lifetime

December 5th, 2021

On Dec. 5, 2014, NASA’s Orion space capsule launched for the first time. This spacecraft is designed to take astronauts to the moon and even Mars.

No one was on board for this test launch, but there will be astronauts blasting off into space inside these capsules by the mid-2020s. 

For the first test launch, it lifted off on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral. 

Four and a half hours later, it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. This mission allowed NASA to check out Orion’s key components, like the heat shield, parachutes and on-board computers.

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

20th November 2021

On Nov. 20, 1998, the first piece of the International Space Station launched into orbit. 

The 42,000-pound module is called Zarya, and it’s about the size of a tour bus. Zarya launched on board a Russian Proton rocket. Two weeks later, the STS-88 shuttle mission brought the Unity module into space.  

The STS-88 astronauts connected the two modules in orbit. Zarya was built by the Russians, but it was paid for by the United States. NASA contracted a Russian company to build it for half the price of what the American company Lockheed Martin would have charged. 

These days, Zarya is mainly used for storage and for external fuel tanks. The module also has docking ports for Russian Progress cargo ships and Soyuz spacecraft that carry crews to and from the space station. 

Today, the International Space Station is about the size of a football field and typically hosts up to six crewmembers. But back then, it was a pretty tight squeeze. 

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

15th November 2021

China is building a specially designed ship for launching rockets into space from the seas in an effort to boost its capacity to launch satellites and recover rocket stages.

The 533 feet (162.5 meters) long, 131 feet (40 meters) wide “New-type rocket launching vessel” is being constructed for use with the new China Oriental Spaceport at Haiyang, Shandong province on the Eastern coast. 

The new ship is expected to enter service in 2022. It will feature integrated launch support equipment and be capable of facilitating launches of the Long March 11, larger commercial “Smart Dragon” rockets and, in the future, liquid propellant rockets, according to the social media channel for the spaceport. 

The vessel could also in the future be used for the recovery of first stages, possibly in the same way as SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ships provide a landing platform for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket first stages.

China has already conducted two sea launches of Long March 11 solid rockets from the Yellow Sea using converted barges, with the most recent launch taking place in September 2020. These missions made China only the third country to perform a sea launch, following the U.S. and Russia.

China’s main space contractor stated at the start of the year that it planned two to three sea launches of the Long March 11, but none have taken place so far. It is not known if plans for the new ship are related to the apparent delays. 

The ship will help boost the rate at which China can launch from the sea and ease the pressure on China’s four main launch centers. 

So far in 2021 China has already launched 41 times so far, setting a new national record for orbital launches in a calendar year, leading the U.S. which has 39 launches to date, including Rocket Lab launches from New Zealand. 

With new commercial companies emerging and major constellation plans in the works, along with preparations for major space station missions, the sea launch option will provide more routes to orbit.

Launching from the sea holds promises other advantages for China. Flexible positioning of the launch site means it is easier to choose a flight path which doesn’t fly over other countries and makes sure spent rocket stages and other debris fall into the sea rather than on land. Debris from launches from China’s inland sites fall to ground rather than the sea, and sometimes land close to populated areas

A mobile sea platform also allows launches closer to the equator. The greater rotational speed of the Earth near the equator means lower fuel requirements to achieve orbit.

The China Oriental Seaport (sometimes instead called the “China Eastern Seaport”) project is being led by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), the main rocket maker under China’s giant state-owned space contractor, CASC, in cooperation with the government of Haiyang city.

The Haiyang base will also have the capacity for rocket assembly and testing, and produce up to 20 solid rockets per year. Future plans will enable the site to also produce more complex liquid propellant rockets. 

China Rocket Co. Ltd., a commercial spinoff from CALT, is developing the “Smart Dragon” series of solid rockets. Smart Dragon 3 is expected to launch for the first time in 2022 and, at 102 (31 meters) long, will be much larger than the 64 feet (19.5 meters) long Smart Dragon 1 which launched for the first time in 2019. 

China Rocket has also signed a contract for launches from Haiyang and Smart Dragon 3 will be capable of launching from the sea.

Source: https://www.space.com/china-building-ship-rocket-launches-at-sea